Philosophy 106 - 6.2.5 The Mind as Self

Many philosophers, Western and non-Western, have equated the self to the mind. But what is the mind? A monist response is the mind is the brain. Yet, if the mind is the brain, a purely biological entity, then how do we explain consciousness? Moreover, if we take the position that the mind is immaterial but the body is material, we are left with the question of how two very different types of things can causally affect the other. The question of “How do the two nonidentical and dissimilar entities experience a causal relationship?” is known as the mind-body problem. This section explores some alternative philosophical responses to these questions.


Reducing the mind to the brain seems intuitive given advances in neuroscience and other related sciences that deepen our understanding of cognition. As a doctrine, physicalism is committed to the assumption that everything is physical. Exactly how to define the physical is a matter of contention. Driving this view is the assertion that nothing that is nonphysical has physical effects.

Think Like a Philosopher

Listen to the podcast “David Papineau on Physicalism” in the series Philosophy Bites.

Focus on the thought experiment concerning what Mary knows. Here is a summary of the thought experiment:

Mary is a scientist and specializes in the neurophysiology of color. Strangely, her world has black, white, and shades of gray but lacks color (weird, but go with it!). Due to her expertise, she knows every physical fact concerning colors. What if Mary found herself in a room in which color as we experience it is present? Would she learn anything? A physicalist must respond “no”! Do you agree? How would you respond?

John Locke and Identity

In place of the biological, Locke defined identity as the continuity lent through what we refer to as consciousness. His approach is often referred to as the psychological continuity approach, as our memories and our ability to reflect upon our memories constitute identity for Locke. In his Essay on Human Understanding, Locke (as cited by Gordon-Roth 2019) observed, “We must consider what Person stands for . . . which, I think, is a thinking intelligent Being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider it self as itself, the same thinking thing in different times and places.” He offered a thought experiment to illustrate his point. Imagine a prince and cobbler whose memories (we might say consciousness) were swapped. The notion is far-fetched, but if this were to happen, we would assert that the prince was now the cobbler and the cobbler was now the prince. Therefore, what individuates us cannot be the body (or the biological).


John Locke on Personal Identity

Part of the BBC Radio 4 series A History of Ideas, this clip is narrated by Gillian Anderson and scripted by Nigel Warburton.

The Problem of Consciousness

Christof Koch (2018) has said that “consciousness is everything you experience.” Koch offered examples, such as “a tune stuck in your head,” the “throbbing pain from a toothache,” and “a parent’s love for a child” to illustrate the experience of consciousness. Our first-person experiences are what we think of intuitively when we try to describe what consciousness is. If we were to focus on the throbbing pain of a toothache as listed above, we can see that there is the experiencing of the toothache. Curiously, there is also the experiencing of the experiencing of the toothache. Introspection and theorizing built upon first-person inspections affords vivid and moving accounts of the things experienced, referred to as qualia.

An optimal accounting of consciousness, however, should not only explain what consciousness is but should also offer an explanation concerning how consciousness came to be and why consciousness is present. What difference or differences does consciousness introduce?


Listen to the podcast “Ted Honderich on What It Is to Be Conscious,” in the series Philosophy Bites.

Rene Descartes and Dualism

Dualism, as the name suggests, attempts to account for the mind through the introduction of two entities. The dualist split was addressed earlier in the discussion of substance. Plato argued for the reality of immaterial forms but admitted another type of thing—the material. Aristotle disagreed with his teacher Plato and insisted on the location of the immaterial within the material realm. How might the mind and consciousness be explained through dualism?


Mind Body Dualism

A substance dualist, in reference to the mind problem, asserts that there are two fundamental and irreducible realities that are needed to fully explain the self. The mind is nonidentical to the body, and the body is nonidentical to the mind. The French philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650) offered a very influential version of substance dualism in his 1641 work Meditations on First Philosophy. In that work, Descartes referred to the mind as a thinking thing (res cogitans) and the body as an extended nonthinking thing (res extensa). Descartes associated identity with the thinking thing. He introduced a model in which the self and the mind were eternal.

A drawing shows a kneeling person holding a skull. Another person is standing behind the kneeling person.
Figure 6.9 Alas Poor Yorick. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the character of Hamlet holds the skull of a court jester, his departed childhood companion, and laments his passing. Hamlet contemplates the fleetingness of existence through the moment. But what exactly is it that experiences existence? What is the self? (credit: “Hamlet with Yorick’s skull” by Henry Courtney Selous/Wikimedia, Public Domain)


There is a response that rejects the idea of an independent mind. Within this approach, what is important is not mental states or the existence of a mind as a sort of central processor, but activity that can be translated into statements concerning observable behavior (Palmer 2016, 122). As within most philosophical perspectives, there are many different “takes” on the most correct understanding. Behaviorism is no exception. The “hard” behaviorist asserts that there are no mental states. You might consider this perspective the purist or “die-hard” perspective. The “soft” behaviorist, the moderate position, does not deny the possibility of minds and mental events but believes that theorizing concerning human activity should be based on behavior.

Before dismissing the view, pause and consider the plausibility of the position. Do we ever really know another’s mind? There is some validity to the notion that we ought to rely on behavior when trying to know or to make sense of the “other.” But if you have a toothache, and you experience myself being aware of the qualia associated with a toothache (e.g., pain, swelling, irritability, etc.), are these sensations more than activities? What of the experience that accompanies the experience?

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax